Who’s next?

Test launch of the new Russian Bulava missile


First we got the bomb and that was good, ‘cause we love peace and brotherhood.

Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s OK ‘cause the balance of power’s maintained that way.

Who’s next?    From the song “Who’s Next” by musician, satirist, and mathematician Tom Lehrer


An early American nuclear submarine, the USS Scorpion, was actually constructed twice – the first hull was abruptly extended by over 130 feet and the boat was renamed the George Washington. Today we’d say that it was “re-purposed” from a fast attack submarine to become the world’s first ballistic missile submarine. Launched in 1959 the George Washington was one of the nation’s highest-priority projects, forming the least vulnerable leg of the nation’s nuclear triad (the other legs being bombers and missiles). The chief advantage of the ballistic missile boats – boomers is what we called them – was their relative invisibility; unlike bombers and missiles a boomer could simply go quiet and vanish into the depths of the sea. Even we didn’t know exactly where they were, and the later boomers were so quiet that even at close range they simply blended in with the background noise of the ocean. In the fast-attack boats we somewhat derisively said that the boomers’ mission was to “hide with pride” and we made occasional rude comments about them and their crews. But the fact remained that they had a tough job – to remain at sea and undetected for months at a time and, if the need arose, to rise to missile-firing depth to launch an attack against our foes – all the while knowing that they would be the most-sought targets on the planet.

At the height of the Cold War the US had just over 40 boomers, each carrying at least a dozen missiles and each missile holding up to 10 nuclear or thermonuclear warhead. With a bit of Hollywood hyperbole the movie Crimson Tide claimed that the skipper of an Ohio-class boomer (the Trident submarines) was the third most-powerful person in the world, able to rain nuclear destruction down on any foe within 6000 miles. Today we have need for fewer boomers than in past years and the US is down to 14 Ohio-class boats. But with as many as two dozen missiles each, even the pared-down boomer force is a formidable force.

The Soviets launched their own boomers fairly quickly with the diesel-powered Hotel class boats in 1959 and the nuclear-powered Yankee class a decade later. The Brits were the next up, launching their first Resolution-class boat in 1966 and the French joined the party a half-decade later with the launch of the Redoutable. Rounding out today’s nuclear-powered boomer club are the Chinese, who launched their first nuclear-powered boomer in 1981.

The world, of course, continues to change and the quest for boomers is no exception. After all, the US figured out how to insert a missile compartment into a submarine hull a half-century ago – that level of technology is well within the grasp of every one of today’s nuclear powers. So today we find that not only are the American, Brits, Russians, and Chinese all developing their next generation of nuclear-powered boomers, but the Indians are developing their own indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile boat as well, and even Israel and Pakistan are rumored to have or to be developing diesel-powered submarines that can launch nuclear-tipped missiles. It seems likely that, before too much longer, every nuclear nation (except perhaps North Korea) will have its own undetectable nuclear deterrent force. The question is whether this is good or bad.

The best answer is probably “yes” – that the proliferation of boomers can serve to either stabilize or to destabilize whatever nuclear balance that might exist. Here’s why.

First, we can pretty much take the American, British, French, Russian, and Chinese boats off the table – these nations are all well-established nuclear powers and they all know that they can count on the others to act rationally. We are comfortable that the Russians won’t wake up one morning and decide to launch their missiles against us, just as they have that same confidence in the Chines and the British. But this level of confidence is borne of decades of competition – if the Russians didn’t launch their missiles against us during the Cuban Missile Crisis and if we didn’t attack them during the Berlin airlift or after the 1986 shoot-down of a passenger jet then it’s likely that neither side will use its missiles precipitously. But can the Indians trust the Pakistanis to act rationally as we trusted the Russians and the Chinese? And does Iran trust the Israelis?

I would suggest that, during the Cold War ballistic missile boats served to help stabilize the situation. With both sides knowing – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that the other side possessed a relatively invisible nuclear deterrent and the willingness to use it each side has an incredibly good reason to stay calm during crises. Had this balance of terror been upset – had the Soviets, for example, felt that they could take out the American boomers, there might have been the temptation to do so, possibly emboldening the foe to launch a pre-emptive war. Alternately, had the Soviets not possessed their own boomers the US might have been tempted to launch an all-out strike to devastate their global foe, secure in the knowledge that we could launch our missiles without much fear of retaliation. India and Pakistan might be building towards this level of equality – each nation armed with nuclear weapons and each striving to field nuclear missile boats – we can hope that these nations remain more or less in step so that neither gains a decisive advantage. But what about other situations in which there is no pretense of balance, and in which there might not be for some decades? It seems unlikely that Israel will feel like launching an unprovoked attack against its foes, but might one of its foes be prompted to attack Israel to forestall an anticipated Israeli attack? And what if North Korea were to develop a ballistic missile submarine – might they feel capable of attacking the South, secure in the knowledge that their boomers might be able to attack the South and to position themselves off the American coast, ready to attack should we come to the aid of the South?

It could be that a deterrent only works when each side can deter the other – that a one-sided deterrent force is unstable in the long run unless there is a degree of trust and understanding between foes. Perhaps a balance of terror is the most stable situation we are capable of pulling off. If so, we need to take a serious look at those parts of the world in which there is a lack of mutual understanding coupled with animosity and a mismatch of power. Is there an answer to this – will Israel’s foes allow their opponent an unanswerable weapon (and, for that matter, will anyone if this trend continues to spread)? Or can the stable leg of a nation’s nuclear triad actually serve to undermine the very security it purports to uphold? I guess we’ll find out.

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